I Want to Be Like the Pharisees

In the past couple of years I’ve been reading about first-century Judaism(s). Part of what I’ve learned is that the reputation of the Pharisees has been sorely misunderstood. In fact, the reputation has become so bad that Dictionary.com has as the second entry for the definition as “a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.” If you were to tell anyone in a church today that you’d like to be more like the Pharisees they might look at you like you had two heads. Brad Young, in Jesus the Jewish Theologian, notes how the Pharisees are primarily seen as hypocritical but this was not their reputation during the first century. On the contrary he notes “[t]he Pharisee represents piety and holiness and not self-righteous hypocrisy.” (188) He notes that “[t]he theology of Jesus was actually almost identical to that of the Pharisees. . . While Jesus criticized the hypocritical practices of some Pharisees, he never uttered a negative word about the teachings of the Pharisees. . . Like an insider, Jesus said that their teachings were good, but they did not always practice what they preached (Matt 23:1-2). His sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of some Pharisees is far different from an attack against the theology of Pharisaism.” (228)

In a new book by Rabbi David Zaslow, Jesus: First-Century Rabbi, he makes the same observations only from a Jewish perspective. Like all groups there are good and bad representatives. “Among the Pharisees”, he says, “were saints, geniuses, scholars, and hypocrites too.” (51) “Jesus seems to have challenged the Pharisees as an insider with a kind of healthy self-criticism of the movement he was so close to. His words against some Pharisees are in line with what other Pharisees later wrote, which were collected and published in the Talmud.” (52) “Jesus, along with many of his rabbinical colleagues, was critical of those Pharisees who did not practice what they preached. For example, Talmudic rabbis such as Yehoshua used to say, ‘A foolish pietist . . .and the plague of the Pharisees bring destruction upon the world’ (Sotah 20a). Another passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 3:4) declares, ‘What is the plague Pharisee? He who gives advice to orphans in order to benefit from the widow.'” (52-53) “One Talmudic source was very specific indeed regarding different types of Pharisees. The Talmud (Sotah 22b) reports that there were Pharisees who looked over their shoulders to see whether anyone was observing the good deeds they were about to perform. Such internal criticism still goes on today between various sects in all religions.” (53)

“Jesus and Paul ought to be seen as active members of the Jewish community. Otherwise, inaccurate information will continue to be perpetuated about what was really said about the Pharisees.” (Zaslow, 54)



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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